Can you teach 80 students without lecturing?

This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate course on the history of human trafficking (20th/21st centuries). When I planned the course I thought I would probably get between 35-45 students. Working from that assumption, I structured the course in such a way that there would be no lecturing the entire semester.

I have 80 students.

To my surprise and pleasure, it turns out that the history of human trafficking is a subject that really energized George Mason students — I could have had 90 students if my room had been large enough. That’s the good news. The bad news — it seemed — was that I was going to have to junk the syllabus I wrote during the early part of the summer in favor of a course that was heavily lecture. After all, how else can you teach to 80 students in a history class?

Because I am still waiting for someone to show me that study demonstrating that lecturing is an effective form of teaching (if student learning is the goal of teaching), I decided to just jump off the end of the dock and teach 80 students the same way I was planning to teach half that number. It’s still early days in the semester, but so far the results seem pretty good.

You can read the entire syllabus if you visit the class website, but for the purpose of thinking about how one might teach 80 students without lecturing, you need to know that one of my primary learning goals (in addition to helping students acquire a more sophisticated knowledge of the history of human trafficking) was to teach them how to ask questions. It’s been my observation over the years that the American educational system is very good at teaching our students how to answer questions, but not very good at teaching them how to ask the kinds of questions we want them to ask.

So, the entire first half of the course is structured around questions that the students themselves generate. Each Thursday we break into groups and discuss the questions that need to be answered next week for us to move toward our goals in the course. Between Thursday and Tuesday, the students go to the books I’ve assigned and see if they can find answers to the questions they (not I) decided needed to be answered. Then on Tuesday, we reconvene, they work in groups to see what they’ve come up individually, then report out. And so on for the rest of the first half of the term.

It has been gratifying thus far to see how the questions they are asking are moving from very large and difficult to get hold of to more and more focused with each passing week. I have also been pleased with the results from my decision to tell them that the books I assigned were resources where they should begin their research, rather than saying “Next week we’ll discuss Misha Glenny’s McMafia. Be sure to be ready to discuss it in class on Tuesday.”

Thus far I’ve found that the students are really learning to mine the books for answers to their questions — a skill we also want them to develop.

Are all the students in the class fully engaged? Of course not. There are certainly some who are hiding, sitting quietly, not writing for the blog, etc. But that would be true if I stood at the front of the room and lectured at them, so I’m not sure whether my approach is working for more or fewer students. I suspect that the answer is “more,” but it’s still early days.

12 thoughts on “Can you teach 80 students without lecturing?

  1. Christopher Lee

    I moved from teaching in a brick-and-mortar high school classroom last year to a virtual school this year, and in both settings I taught/teach AP US History. One of my biggest challenges this year has been adjusting to not being able to get in my students’ collective grill and repeating ’til I’m blue in the face, “Read the assigned text. Do your notecards. Answer the discussion questions. Etc.”

    In a virtual environment, one is forced to let go, at least partially, of the top-down style of teaching in favor of a more asynchronous, modular mode of teaching. I can’t say that I’m fully comfortable with it, mostly because I see HUGE flaws in the curriculum (which we purchased from Florida Virtual School), but I know that I am the one who needs to adjust and not try and mold the curriculum to more accurately mirror a regular lecture-style pedagogy (which dominates most AP US History classrooms).

    All that leads to your post. What if, instead of “covering the text,” AP teachers (or any K12 teacher for that matter) decided to follow a similar model as you describe above? What if the assigned text was a resource, along with Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet, for answering these student-generated questions? Surely, at the high school level, there would be some type of training similar to what you mentioned above (identifying significance, asking good questions, mining the text). And this is particularly significant for virtual classrooms where lectures are simply not a real option. (There is Elluminate, but I have yet to get all my students in a single Elluminate session all at once.)

    Please keep us updated on this experiment because some of us might start using it too!

  2. Joseph Reagle

    Very interesting, when the students generate questions, do they look for answers for only their group, or do you aggregate them on Thur and then everyone goes off and does the same questions? Did the class self-select groups? Also, I’m curious how you’ll do individual assessments of a group project with 80 participants?

  3. Mills Post author

    Thanks for these early comments.

    To Christopher I would say that I think it would be great if we stopped relying on textbooks in history the way we have for so long. It seems to me that even the best textbooks impose a sort of this happened, then this happened, then this happened pedagogy on students and their teachers. But I would also say that the jump from teaching from a textbook to the way I’m teaching this class is a big one. I’ve been moving in this direction for years, but in small steps. And I’ve been teaching at the college level since 1993, so I have a lot of experience to draw on. You are right to say that there would need to be some training — I’d say extensive training — of teachers who have already been relying on coverage models as they transition to what we might call an inquiry model. But it’s definitely doable.

    To Joseph I would offer the following additions to my post. The students generate questions in their group, then we get them all up on the board and then into the class blog. From that combined list we settle on the class questions for next week and all go off and do the same questions. But, and I think this is an important but, a growing number of the students are still pursuing additional questions that matter to them. They post these answers online or bring them to class. The groups were selected by me using that highly sophisticated method of assigning the first ten students on the roll sheet to group 1, the second ten to group 2, and so on. Students may not migrate from their groups, because I want them to go ahead and negotiate their relationships in the groups and get to work. Moving from group to group results in constant renegotiation and a decline in productivity. As for the group assessment, I’ll take that up in a later post if you don’t mind. I have a system, not perfect…but a system.

  4. Bruce D'Arcus

    Am experimenting with a similar group-based approach in a 85+ student introductory geography course. From previous experience, I have found it quite important to keep the groups quite small (ideal size: four) and to make sure every person on every day has a clearly defined role. It’s far more anal than I am by nature (I have seldom bothered taking role even), but I find it’s the only way to ensure the proper focus and energy and fair distribution of work within the group. The major group project in this case is a wiki page on a place that they develop using terms and concepts we explore in the course. Alas, I still fall back on lectures at time.

  5. Steve Saideman

    Mills, You may have changed my life. My 400 classes never get smaller than 80. They do break down into discussion sections with a TA, but I never do anything but lecture unless I get the rare opportunity at the undergrad level to teach an honors seminar. Too late for this term, but maybe I will try it next year.

    Will track to see how this goes. Good luck,

  6. G Man

    I would think that keeping a large audience engaged would be the most challenging. Perhaps a bit less when the students are genuinely interested in the course.

    I’m interested in hearing how this develops.

  7. Misha Griffith

    A joyful noise indeed! I am a witness to this process–I’m the TA, and can attest to the level of interest in the students. After two years of assisting in a Required Western Civ class, I can say the level of excitement is geometrically higher. Is it because the students are choosing to be in the class? Sure–the enthusiasm has got to be greater than in any class that is considered mandatory. And no, we have not gotten 100 percent participation on the blog, etc. What we have got are a core group of students who are applying themselves to a difficult task. This is a tough subject to wrap your head around–I do not think we have yet gotten a totally sufficient definition of trafficking. Not because the students have not been considering it, but because they have found such variety and complexities involved in the issues. I think it is due to the open-ended nature of the enquiry. The students know the answers are not readily available in a text. They have an expectation of mystery around their research.

  8. Anonymous Student

    The teachers have spoken, so now it’s time for the students to speak up… or at least one–me.

    I read this blog post, but it wasn’t until I read the comments that I decided I should leave a comment.

    I’m a student in this class, except it doesn’t feel like a class, and I don’t feel like a student. I feel like a scholar in a joint task force of other scholars. I don’t say this implying that I have profound knowledge on human trafficking, but rather that I (as well as each enrolled individual) must think about issues involved in human trafficking, then ask questions about those issues, and consult the sources for myself. All throughout the process, we share what we have come up with in groups and as a class–live and virtually.

    It is by no means a boring class nor is it an easy-A class where you don’t really learn much. In fact, I truly think that even if any of my colleagues that “hate history” took this class, they would not hate this class (I think that if ALL history classes were more like this, so many people wouldn’t have that “I hate history” mentality).

    As I’m a history major, I have taken plenty of history courses–none of which I have enjoyed as much as this one. It’s true that the teacher is a nice person–but most of my history teachers were nice people, so that trait in itself does not single him out as a standout teacher. It is also true that the teacher is well-versed in what he does, but once again–so were most of my other history teachers. What separates Professor Mills from the rest of the crowd [of other history teachers I have had] is the way he has designed this course.

    It is true that some of my former history teachers incorporated “discussion” in their classes; however, they usually missed one key component of which Professor Mills sums up very nicely: “It’s been my observation over the years that the American educational system is very good at teaching our students how to answer questions, but not very good at teaching them how to ask the kinds of questions we want them to ask.”

    Usually, it is the teachers asking us the questions; here, we get to ask the questions for ourselves. Usually, it is the teachers telling us what we have to write our essays about (sure, they often time allow us to choose from a list of topics or questions THEY have chosen–but those are all still things THEY chose); here, it is us deciding what to write about. Don’t get the wrong idea–the professor is not just leaving us to aimlessly wander in confusion and do whatever we want. Rather, it is as if he is one of us–everyone just takes turn driving, and Professor Mills makes sure the car does not veer off the road. He keeps us steered in the right direction and keeps things thoroughly organized so much so that we somehow always have enough time in class to discuss the questions/issues that WE came up with. That is the thing that I love most about this class–that we are encouraged to use our minds and think–unlike in other history classes where our minds are almost put on mute.

    As for the class blog–it makes things a lot easier. Key questions we discuss in each class are constantly posted there as well as things we come up with via brainstorming, research, etc. If the class size was significantly smaller (about fifteen or less), I don’t think the blog would be absolutely necessary. I say this because as the class is now in terms of size (about 80), there simply would not be enough time for each individual to participate in class discussions; therefore, the blog fixes this problem for us (and on the note of participation, the way we separate into our assigned groups and discuss is a good way to maximize student participation in our large class). Nonetheless, I think a class blog is a very good idea. Even if blog participation wasn’t mandatory, I still believe that ANY class SHOULD have an optional blog. My reasoning for this is because there is so much benefit that can be derived from a blog. Students can share links they know of, post their two cents, ask questions, etc.

    All in all, my favorite thing about this class is that we get to become scholars in it.

    I wish that my Historical Methods class (History 300) was like this one (as well as all my other classes I ever took! Had that been the case, things would have been much more beneficial.

    I thought it would be better for me to post this anonymously so that I can be certain that these words are coming from my heart and aren’t just being said in an effort to suck up to the professor.

  9. mlh

    There seems to be a growing interest in the topic of questions in the classroom. The interest goes beyond just keeping students focused on the course topics, and into getting the student to move from a recepticle into which facts are to be poured, and into a person creating a variety of items.

  10. Lincoln Mullen

    Mills: I wanted to let you know that we discussed this blog post and syllabus in Brandeis’s Teaching with Technology committee. Your post provoked lots of discussion about teaching large classes without lectures. The two crucial things we took away were (1) that having a cumulative project that served a purpose broader than the classroom, like your white paper assignment, was an excellent way to get students involved and (2) that the blog is a great way to keep a learning community developed inside a classroom going outside of class. Thanks for the ideas; we learned a lot from them.

  11. Mills Post author

    Hi Lincoln: Thanks for the comment. I’m glad this post was helpful. I have just received the students’ end of semester evaluations and will be going through them over the next week or so. I asked them to write in some detail about their experiences in the course, so I should know a lot more about how it worked for them. I’ll post a summary in the blog–I hope before the holidays.

  12. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Clone Wars Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Comments are closed.